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Pilots of the Caribbean

OFFICERS AND GENTLEMEN: A group of RAF officers. Ulric Cross, the most decorated West Indian veteran, is third from right in the front row

LIKE THE sailors at the Battle of Trafalgar or the archers at Agincourt, the figure of the World War II Royal Air Force pilot stands high in Britain’s national story. When we imagine the typical Spitfire pilot or the crewman of a Lancaster bomber we seldom picture someone of African heritage. Yet nearly 500 black men from the West Indies, Africa and Britain answered the call to serve as aircrew and thousands more worked as ground support staff.

Before the war, entry into the Royal Air Force was restricted to “men of pure European descent” except under exceptional circumstances. An exceptional circumstance arose in the early years of the war when thousands of airmen were lost or killed in action.

As a result, the call for volunteers went out across the British Empire. This call (together with the withdrawal of the colour bar to service) led to the enlistment of nearly 6,000 people from the Caribbean. Sixty black Africans volunteered with a further 5,200 serving in the West African Air Corps.

Flight Lieutenant John J Blair, DFC (Jamaica) said: “While we were fighting we never thought about defending the Empire...Few people think about what would have happened to them in Jamaica if Germany had defeated Britain, but we certainly could have returned to slavery.”

The experience of volunteers of African heritage in the RAF is the subject of a new exhibition at the Royal Air Force Museum curated in partnership with the Black Cultural Archives.

Unlike the famous Tuskegee Airmen of the United States 332nd Fighter Group, Black aircrew in the RAF were not segregated and served alongside white servicemen. A total of 103 were decorated.

Former Royal Air Force personnel featured prominently amongst those who led the Caribbean territories to independence including Errol Barrow, prime minister of Barbados and Michael Manley, prime minister of Jamaica.

Up to a third of the arrivals on the Empire Windrush in 1948 were either former airmen or those looking to join the service.

In the post-war period, ex-Royal Air Force personnel would play crucial roles in the development of the black community in Britain.

The Black Cultural Archives will be opening the UK’s first dedicated Black Heritage Centre at Windrush Square, Brixton, in 2014.



Flight Lieutenant Dudley ‘Burning Spear’ Thompson, Jamaica
An eminent Pan-Africanist, Jamaican foreign minister, international lawyer, chairman of the People’s National Party of Jamaica, Ambassador to Ghana, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, Dudley Thompson QC was amongst the first Jamaicans to enlist as aircrew in the RAF.

Squadron Leader Ulric Cross DFC DSO, Trinidad
International lawyer, High Commisioner, BBC producer and diplomat. As a navigator he flew with the elite Pathfinder Force that perfected techniques for precision main force bombing. He completed 80 missions over occupied Europe, often flying at 50ft. Cross was the most decorated West Indian in the wartime RAF. He died on October 4, 2013.

Flight Lieutenant Edward Scobie, Dominica
The ‘godfather’ of Black British history and author of Black Britannia: A History of Blacks in Britain, Dr Edward Scobie was a pilot in Bomber Command during World War II. He was a founder member of the Dominica Freedom Party and went on to lecture in history and political science at Rutgers University, Princeton and New York City University.

Flight Lieutenant Cy Grant, Guyana
Writer, barrister, philosopher, actor and theatre advocate, Cy Grant was shot down on his third bombing mission in June 1943. He spent the next two years as a prisoner of war. His calypso performances on the Tonight show made him the most popular African-Caribbean performer on British television in the 1960s.

Sam King, Jamaica
Former mayor of Southwark and civil rights campaigner. Joined the RAF in 1944. Returned to Britain on the Empire Windrush in 1948.

Val McCalla, Jamaica
Founder of The Voice newspaper. He served in the RAF in the 1960s.

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